When St. Paul was caught up into Heaven, he was told secrets “which it is not granted man to utter.” When St. John was brought up before the Throne of the Lamb, he wrote in symbols bizarre, violent, and esoteric. But when the fictionalized Dante followed his lady love into Paradise, which he claims was a place where “memory cannot follow,” he still writes about the angelic home with an almost Thomistic clarity and cogency.
Memory arises again later in the poem, when he speaks of a carol that “fades from any memory of mine” (XX.12). When discoursing on the angelic nature, it is observed that the blessed spirits have “no need to keep / in memory the divisions of their thought” (XIX.80-81), since they possess knowledge directly from the divine source. As Dante finally turns his gaze into the central light of God, he admits,
From this point on
Whatever human language can convey
must yield to vision, passing the extreme—
to such great prowess memory must give way. (XXXIII.54-57)
He prays that some impression of the heavenly vision, at least, may return to him. Like a man forgetting the contents of a dream but retaining its emotional impression, or a sun dissolving away the morning dew, Dante cannot remember, and must ask for a fresh vision of the vision Beatrice once led him to see,
For should something return to memory
and sound but faintly in my verses here,
the clearer will they see your victory. (XXXIII.73-75)
And then he proceeds to describe what he saw, as best as his art will allow.
In Dante’s acknowledgement of memory’s limitations, he is echoing St. Augustine’s exposition on the nature of memory in the Confessions. As the early doctor of the Church expounds,
Here I am climbing up through my mind towards you who are constant above me. I will pass beyond even that power of mind which is called memory, desiring to reach you by the way through which you can be reached, and to be bonded to you by the way in which it is possible to be bonded.
Beasts and birds also have a memory. Otherwise they could not rediscover their dens and nests, and much else that they are habitually accustomed to. Habit could have no influence on them in any respect except by memory. So I will also ascend beyond memory to touch him who “set me apart from quadrupeds and made me wiser than the birds of heaven.”
As I rise above memory, where am I to find you? My true good and gentle source of reassurance, where shall I find you? If I find you outside my memory, I am not mindful of you. And how shall I find you if I am not mindful of you? (Confessions X.17)
Augustine knows that memory is a tool shared by the beasts, and thus it cannot obtain true images of spiritual natures. Man has intellectual powers above that of memory, but after using these powers how can he remember those spiritual insights he has gained? Are they not lost forever? Dante within the poem faces the same crisis, and can only solve it by praying for a new vision to bring the old vision to mind.
Thus does he get past the seemingly insoluble problem of remembering his foretaste of the Beatific Vision. But he admits in the first canto that all of Heaven is a place where memory cannot follow, so the difficulty of describing the vision of God at the end is different from the difficulty of describing Heaven generally only by degree, not by kind.
Or perhaps not. He follows up his early admission by this preface:
Nevertheless what small part I can keep
of that holy kingdom treasured in my heart
will now become the matter of my song. (Paradiso I.10-12)
What does he use to keep these small parts of Heaven “treasured in [his] heart”? I suspect he intends to imply the use of a kind of memory palace, where certain facts are associated with physical locations. The idea was popularized by Cicero, but Augustine’s description of traveling through his memory is very similar, if lacking in architectural arrangements:
See the broad plains and caves and caverns of my memory. The varieties there cannot be counted, and are, beyond any reckoning, full of innumerable things…. I run through all these things, I fly here and there, and penetrate their working as far as I can. (Conf. X.17)
Augustine associates memories with natural landscapes, but Dante associates them with the cosmos itself. He uses the cosmological structure–as it was believed to be constructed at the time–to mirror the levels of blessedness among the saints. Thus the Moon is associated with the inconstant but repentant religious, Mars with holy warriors, Saturn with contemplatives, and so forth. We can posit that the fictionalized Dante was making these imaginative associations as he was given a tour of the blissful afterlife, a place beyond sensible imagination. He can bring these associations again to mind whenever he gazes up into the starry sky and watches the planets chart their lonely courses. That is how the writing of the Paradiso can be accomplished at least in part through memory.
While he makes acceptably traditional use of St. Augustine, the theological map for the whole Comedy is actually attributable to Thomas Aquinas, Dante’s fellow Italian and (at the time) a very controversial figure. Thomas would not be canonized until two years after Dante’s death, but the Florentine poet already placed him in the sphere of the Sun with the sainted wise.
His cosmology came from classical esotericists, his psychology from the Church Fathers, his theology from a recent controversial monk, and his poetic style from his own sweet new muse. Was there ever a better example of an artist incorporating the whole of Catholic memory into a single work?